On diluting the Forest Reservation Act


Riding on Supreme Court order diluting Forest Reservation Act : Heinous Conspiracy  Launched by the Vested Interest to Forcibly Evict Poor Forest-Dwellers from Home and Hearth

Whose country is this? For whom the entire state machinery is working? The common downtrodden poverty-stricken tormented traumatized countrymen or a handful of super-rich monopolists, corporate tycoons and their servitors? No, we do not have to conduct  research or scholastic exercise for that. Facts speak and speak out loudly. One such revealing fact has been the Supreme Court verdict delivered on 13 February last over a petition filed by a group of wildlife NGOs, that has spelled doom for nearly 20 lakhs of appallingly poor and extremely backward tribal and other sections of forest-dwelling households in 16 states. The petitioners questioned the constitutional validity of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 which was passed under pressure of surging people’s movement and asked the government to hand back traditional forestlands to the tribals and other forest-dwellers by way of giving patta (tenurial rights). The petitioners had demanded that all those whose claims over traditional forestlands are rejected under the law because of non-production of valid ownership document for being entitled to lease holding should be evicted by state governments. They further held that these abjectly poor forest-dwellers are responsible for reckless deforestation and disturbing ecological balance. Hence, they need to be dispossessed of their right on the dwelling forest land and forest resources. The Apex Court upheld the prayer of the petitioners and has given the state governments time till 27 July 2019 to evict the non-compliant tribals and forest-dwellers. It is also reported that the giant monopoly houses, mining corporates and real estate developers are ebullient over the development because this verdict would allow them to further grab more vast forest land from the forest-dwellers and use it for commercial purpose. In other words, they would make fortunes in exchange for utter ruination of the multitudes of extremely destitute populace. Most significantly, the BJP-led central government who is boastfully claiming in media glare that it is taking up special initiative to highlight the contribution of tribal heroes in nation building and setting up museums of tribal heroes and their heritage, chose not to contest the petition. The government lawyer was conspicuously absent during the hearing. This bears clear evidence that government has connived in eliciting a favourable and virtually ex parte ruling in favour of such a heinous solicitation that would drive out semi-clad semi-fed illiterate Indian citizens from their ancestral home and hearth and pave way for their eventual death as street animals, uncared and unnoticed. In other words, lives of these penurious forest-dwellers do not matter for the government which is committed to feed the super accumulation that the handful of country’s super-rich corporate giants, mining barons and real estate developers pride themselves on.

Sub-human living of the forest-dwelling

The inhuman suffering and tortuous life situation of the forest-dwelling tribals and other communities can be seen from a few examples. A child drank insecticide to quell hunger in a forest tribal area of  Ratlam district in northwest Madhya Pradesh on 31 December last.  This was no isolated an incident but symptomatic of a systematic pattern, which tells us loudly and clearly, that in India today Adivasi lives don’t matter. The child had reportedly asked for grains from the local ration shop several times but had been turned away. Little else is known or has been reported about the incident thereafter. Unable to manage a meal of boiled rice and salt even once a day, these hapless people, more often than not, satisfy their hunger with wild potatoes, mohul and sal seeds, forest-grown jackfruits, wild grass, tree roots and barks, rats, snakes, ants and what not. So malnutrition and fatal diseases take a stranglehold on their life. In absence of drinking water, they are compelled to consume dirty water to contract water-borne diseases like jaundice and hepatitis. There is no healthcare available either. Nearest health-centre, where seldom any physician or health staff is seen, is situated at least 30 kms away that ailing starving people can hardly walk down. The diminished power of immunity against diseases gets transmitted in the offsprings rendering the entire tribe crippled from birth.

And their toil for bare subsistence is unthinkable. They cover distances of 10 to 15 kms to fetch a pot of water or gather dry wood or tree branches. Women irrespective of age carry 15 to 20 kg load of fire-woods on their heads and then walk one or two hours through dense forest and often zigzag hilly terrains to reach their hutments. Most of the areas they dwell on are barren lands. So, wherever they find a small plain stretch on the hills, they clear the weeds and 10 to 12 feet long wild plants and shrubs and undertake cultivation of maze and certain vegetables like beans and legumes with hard sustained labour. But once such cultivation and crop cutting is over, they are prevented from entering into that area for three years.  While the government announces preparation to observe 75 years of independence with pomp and grandeur and takes pride in making the country 5th largest economy of the world, these appallingly poor forest-dwelling tribals and other sections who are estimated to be 250 million in number are still languishing in such a harrowing life condition.

At the national level, it has been estimated that 44.7% of India’s Adivasi population lives below the poverty line, and while constituting only 8% of India’s total population, they make up as much as 25% of the poorest decile of this population.  They do not feature in the daily news but make headlines when some investigative journalism reveals heart-rending starvation deaths in places like Amlasole in West Midnapur district of West Bengal, Sarguja in Madhya Pradesh or in Talajhiri gram panchayat under Kashipur block of Kalahandi district of Odisha, Mokhada tehsil of Palghar district of Maharashtra or Guddayoor village, Agali panchayat, in Kerala’s Palakkad district. Also they make news when there is large-scale eviction as a result of mining projects or dam building. A case in point is the infamous Narmada eviction. On 12 December 1979, in spite of widespread protests, the Indian government decided to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river – and to construct 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams. To achieve this, 200,000 people were displaced, of whom a majority were Adivasis, without any proper rehabilitation. Abject neglect of the need of proper resettlement of these displaced Adivasis turn them into migrant labourers or force them to take up precarious work in cities in order to somehow eke out a bare living. Now, there is a sinister move on the part of vested interest to slay these already slain tribal and other sections of forest dwellers riding on a Supreme Court verdict and branding them as “encroachers” and “culprits of disturbing bio-diversity” 

Backdrop of the latest development

To acquaint everyone of the background of this development, a few facts need to be stated in sequence. Since time immemorial, the tribal communities of India have had an integral and close knit relationship with the forests and have been dependent on the forests for livelihoods and existence. The relationship was mutually beneficial and not one sided. In-depth studies have shown that forests have not just been dwelling places of the poor tribals and other backward people. These impoverished marginalized millions living in the remote and often inaccessible villages in deep forest, have also been conserving the forests because of their high dependence on forest resources. Thus, they have been integral to forest ecosystem. Never was it found that tribals and other poor forest-dwellers were destroying forests. Even during British rule, destruction of forest land was not heard of. It were the ruling bourgeois governments, corporate houses and their contractors in the post-independence period who undertook large scale deforestation systematically for long.  But, their rightful  claim  on  their  ancestral land has been denied by the ruling authorities under this or that pretext. and in the absence of legal ownership of the land, the British rulers had promulgated  Indian Forest Act, 1927 which empowered them to declare any area to be a reserved   forest,   protected   forest or village forest. In other words, by this Act, the imperialist government arrogated to itself a legal right to evict the poor forest-dwellers anytime and anywhere.

The rights of forest-dwellers, appropriated by former colonial rulers, were further denied in post-independence forest policy, which labelled both tribals and non-tribals as ‘encroachers’ and subjected them to violent evictions. This 1927 Act was continued by the Congress-led Indian bourgeois government even after independence so that seizure of forest lands from the Adivasi populace poses no problem.  Not only that. In 1972, the Government of India promulgated another Act termed Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 which allowed it to constitute any area as a “protected area”, namely a national park, wildlife sanctuary, tiger reserve or community conservation area. This too became a legal tool in the hands of the government to acquire any forest land denying legitimate land ownership right to the dwelling poor.  Under both these laws, the rights of people living in or depending on the area to be declared as a forest or protected area were to be “settled” by a “forest settlement officer.” The officer was supposed to enquire into the claims of forest-dwelling people to land, minor forest produce, etc. In case any claim was found ‘valid’ as per his certification, the claimant would not be liable to be evicted. And who does not know that the utterly corrupt and highly centralized administration in capitalist India hardly works in the interest of the poor and have-nots and if necessary, could merrily give law the slip and ensure compliance with what the masters, the capitalist rulers, desire or mandate. 

So, the forest-dwelling poor people were fleeced and duped at will. Obviously, this caused mounting discontent among the tribals and other forest-dwelling populations and a countrywide protest agitation surged forth against such an injustice being allowed to continue for years. Prior to the FRA, some piecemeal measures were taken by state and Central governments to pacify uprisings of the forest-dwellers and supporting mass movements. But that could not sooth the frayed temper of the suffering forest-dwellers. In 2002-2004 triggered by another Supreme Court order there was country-wide eviction of around 300,000 households which led to many cases of violence, deaths and protests in the central Indian tribal forested areas.

Promulgation of Forest Rights Act 2006

Rattled by that and fearing escalations of such protest movements, the Congress-led government was compelled to pass Forest Rights Act (FRA)in 2006 stating that this new enactment would “recognise and vest the forest rights and occupation in forest land in forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who have been residing in such forests for generations but whose rights could not be recorded.” It was also clearly stated in the FRA that whoever was dwelling on whichever forest land on the day of enactment of FRA (i.e. 29 December 2006) would be deemed to be the owner of that land. The rights proposed to be accorded to Adivasis include pattas (Tenurial Rights) to forest lands and access rights to forest dwellers. But on a close examination, the Act seemed to be more of a conservation manifesto with a host of mandates imposed on the forest-dwellers like land rights were subject to undertaking of responsibilities for forest protection, conservation of forests and wildlife, protection of catchment areas, water sources, and ecologically sensitive areas. Hunting was explicitly excluded from the list of forest rights. Cunningly, in the name of recognizing a pivotal role of the Gram Sabhas (village bodies) in ensuring the rights of the forest dwellers, decision making, planning and management for Joint Forest Management, the actual power rested with the government-administration and ruling party satraps who control and steer the Gram Sabhas to cater to the class interest of the ruling bourgeoisie. A glaring example is the fact that most of the forest-dwellers were not informed that their tenurial right to land was subject to producing prescribed documents within stipulated time. Even corruption cases are also reported. A tahsildar of Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu was found guilty last year for transferring the ownership of 4,000 acres of land, including vast tracts of panchami land, to the Adani group, which has installed a solar power plant there near Kamudhi near Ramanathapuram.

BJP-government connived in legalizing forcible eviction

During the Congress rule in the post-FRA period, this process of giving tenurial right to land hardly took off. On the other hand, progressive assertion of the capitalist state over the forests and turning them into ‘reserve’ areas has been threatening the existence of the tribal and other forest-dwelling have-nots and resulted in their large scale eviction. Once the BJP government came to power, it made the whole implementation process more complicated and hazardous by prescribing inexplicable stringency over the kind of documents needed for establishing the right of ownership over the land. For obvious reasons, illiterate impoverished helpless tribals and other forest-dwellers could hardly produce or manage to secure such documents from appropriate authorities with proofs of authenticity.  Numerous official and independent reports have confirmed that huge numbers of claims have been wrongly rejected and that forest officials, in particular, have a track record of illegally preventing people’s rights from being recognized. In several states there have been reports on administrations going particularly slow on even accepting community-level claims. In several cases, the claims have been rejected based on flawed methodologies in violation of FRA rules. For example, in Gujarat, claims were rejected only based on satellite maps and not on ground surveys. While oral histories and testimonials from village elders are legally acceptable forms of evidence, the bureaucratic takeover of the claim process has resulted in this provision being largely ignored. Field research in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Odisha has shown how disparate verification criteria, confusing nomenclature, intra-society dynamics, misinformation propagated by opponents, lack of awareness and mobilisation amongst communities, no targeted support by civil society and the apathy of implementing agencies have done a serious disservice to non-tribal forest-dwellers, It was expected that the task of recording ownership against reasonable and practicable verification would be vested with the administrative machinery. But in practice, the onus of proving bona fide ownership of land was squarely passed on the poor tribals and the forest-dwellers.  Both state and central governments have repeatedly recognised this – but the Central government chose not to inform the Supreme Court of this basic fact. In absence of this all-important information and any pleading from the government side, the Supreme Court pronounced in its ruling that the state governments would “ensure that where the rejection orders have been passed, eviction will be carried out on or before the next date of hearing i.e. 27 July 2019. As per media report, the total number of rejected claims from 16 states adds up to 1,127,446 tribal and other forest-dwelling households. Several other states that have not provided details to the Court have been asked to do so. Once they follow suit these numbers are likely to swell even beyond 20 lakhs. Further, as per FRA, claimants can lodge an appeal if their claim has been rejected. But, according to a Supreme Court lawyer, “if a claim is appealed, under the state government’s books, it shows as rejected,” Now the Supreme Court verdict said that the eviction would be applicable to cases ‘in which orders have attained finality’. It remains unclear what that means because, “under the Act,” opines a Supreme Court lawyer, “there is no provision for evicting tribals and forest dwellers. So it remains to be seen how these orders will be implemented.” Moreover, the eligible forest-dwellers under this Act include individuals and communities of both Scheduled Tribes (STs) as well as non-tribals, knows as Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs). Both are equally wretched and distressed.  But there is a discrimination in so far as eligibility to land right is concerned. The STs need to prove that they have ‘primarily resided in the forest or forest land prior to 13-12-2005’. But, OTFDs must prove having ‘primarily resided in forests or on forest lands for three generations (75 years) prior to 13-12-2005’ which dates back to a period when most of these areas were under princely states or zamindars, with no survey or land demarcation, and no government records. Thus, most of these equally deserving OTFD communities are unable to produce documentary evidence to support their claims. So ambiguities, discriminations and confusions are galore. Moreover, there are allegations that as against 5 kathas (32 kathas make one acre) of land cultivated by one tribal person, tenurial right is granted for only 2 kathas. Thus, in a total travesty of justice, the original forest-dwelling communities, with the smallest ecological footprint, face being ousted from their homelands in the name of saving the environment. While these people have been protecting many plant species such as roots and tubers as a food source, the self-styled conservationist groups and wild-life protectors who are clearly acting as the field agents of the vested interest are accusing them of creating fragmentation and posing a huge threat to biodiversity. What could be more ridiculous than this! Rightly observes one spokesperson of the global movement for tribal peoples : “This (Supreme Court) judgment is a death sentence for millions of tribal people in India, land theft on an epic scale, and a monumental injustice.”

Why this attack on tribal rights

But why this calculated move to evict the tribal people from their ancestral forest land? Why is it thatthe central and state governments are showing such criminal apathy when the lives and livelihood of around 20 lakh tribals and other poor forest dwellers are put at stake? There is no mystery in it. Rather this is what these governments as most trusted representatives of the ruling capitalist class are carrying out with élan for last seven decades albeit creating a smokescreen of development. All the policies, practices and measures are carefully chalked out to faithfully serve bourgeois class interest which is diametrically opposed to the interest of the oppressed people the tribals and other forest dwellers included. So with every passing day, while it is a sunshine for profit-greedy industrial houses, corporate behemoths, crooked businessmen and their lackeys,  exacerbates the gloom and pitch darkness enshrouding the common toiling millions. This is the real face of decadent, moribund, rotten, utterly corrupt, crude, cruel and outrageously inhuman capitalism camouflaged behind a façade of parliamentary democracy. To get the vast forest lands at their disposal, the monopoly houses, having an eye on expanding mining, tourism and realty businesses, needed to break all legal barriers and scrap whatever little protective regulations are still in existence. The FRA, as mentioned above, stipulated that in forest areas no commercial venture could be undertaken without the consent of the Gram Sabha. This particular clause stood against the attempt to grab tribal land in Niamgiri hills in Odisha by the notorious Vedanta group accused of recklessly violating environmental and other ecology protection laws in Tuticorin of Tamil Nadu and other areas. So, both the government and such culprit industrial tycoons sought to circumvent legal barriers in a different way. They formed a 91-member Gram Sabha in Anarula in the southern corner of the heavily forested state of Chhattisgarh without a single local member so that ‘official’ consent could be obtained without any hassle. In the process was facilitated diversion of the forestland, to Raipur-based Aarti Sponge and Power Ltd, “diverted” for mining.  Several thousand acres of multi-crop fertile land belonging to the local Adivasi population were grabbed in the Godda district of Jharkhand by the Adani group, known to all to be extremely close to the Prime Minister. Both proof of entitlement and police protection against surging protest from the inhabitant tribals were provided to the group by the Jharkhand government. And the hapless locals found the young paddy stocks labouriously sown weeks ago on their cultivable land, the only source of their livelihood, being bulldozed by the “Adani ke log (Adani’s people)”. Such examples are not short in number. Big Industrial houses with the governments in tow have been dodging law nationwide to take over forest land without consent of the tribal communities. These cases are spread across Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. In many places, the land-grabbers could simply kick the local forest-dwellers out of their home and hearth because they had no document that could establish their land rights. And now the present Supreme Court ruling would ‘legalize’ such eviction and the forest as well as few cultivable lands belonging to the backward tribals and other sections of people would practically be handed over to the industrial houses and mining mafias on a silver platter. Even without formal acquisition, vested forest lands are clandestinely handed over to the industrial groups and mining giants through backdoor. Strangely, while the poor forest-dwellers have been accused of deforestation and impairing ecological balance, the industrialists who are destroying forest land, the real estate developers who are razing hillocks into rabbles, the governments who are felling trees after tress for widening roads or even for constructing temporary helipads for the ministers and leaders of the ruling bourgeois parties, escape scot-free. Already over 5 lakh acres of forest land have reportedly been destroyed in last two decades for mining and dam construction. This is the cruel face of class-divided capitalist society in which gross injustice, crass inhumanness, ruthless oppression, glaring deprivation and surfeit of deceptions rule the roost.

Suffering forest-dwellers must unite with people to rise in protest but along right track

Surely, such planned attack on the life and livelihood of the abysmally wretched tribal and other sections of forest-dwellers cannot go unabated. There must a concerted organized countrywide protest. Both the affected forest-dwellers as well as other sections of toiling masses who are equally pressed under the grinding wheel of capitalist exploitation must unite, share common cause and spearhead a powerful protest movement which gradually needs to be elevated to an undaunted resistance movement. But certain important aspects need to be kept in mind. Spontaneous outbursts against such acts of injustice and impropriety are quite natural. But such outbursts would subside very soon unless they are transformed into a well-knit sustained organized movement under correct revolu-tionary leadership. Moreover, the vote-based bourgeois parties for whom pelf and power of parliamen-tarism is the sole objective of political existence, often try to exploit the accumulated grievances and wrath of the deprived and persecuted forest-dwellers including tribals by feigning solidarity with their cause and even making a show of movement. Illiterate and politically unconscious forest-dwellers often fall in the trap of these vote-merchants, rally behind them and extend electoral support to them only to find their own legitimate movement aborted midway, their cause backstabbed and seats of power occupied by the leaders of such parliamentarian parties. Time has come when like all sections of the oppressed millions, the tribals and other backward sections of people ought to understand that realization of their just demands, preservation of their self-esteem, guarantee to their right to live and live with honour can not come by through the route of vote or parliamentarism. In fact, parliamentary vote politics has duped and would continue to dupe them unless and until they acquire necessary political consciousness to identify the vile bourgeois design working behind. Similarly, indulging in ultra-adventurism or so called armed struggle without necessary preparedness would also prove to be a fiasco since it too, as great Lenin said, is nothing but an infantile disorder. Great Mao Zedong categorically pointed out that “Some comrades, disregarding the subjective and objective conditions, suffered from the malady of revolutionary impetuosity. They will not take pains to do minute and detailed work among the masses, but riddled with the illusions, want only to do big things. This is remnant of Putschism (i.e., relying on a small section of masses and attempting to series of local uprisings). [SW. Vol. II, p-107] Indulgence in mindless violence, individual killing or aimless terrorist acts do not complement revolutionary struggle for social progress, rather jeopardize it and strengthen the hands of ruling capitalism. The only course the suffering forest-dwellers need to adopt is to develop in right earnest a united movement in solidarity with the   just   struggles   of   other sections of the oppressed masses against this heinous conspiracy to displace them from their ancestral home and land and ensure conduction of their movement along right track and under correct revolutionary leadership. We also call upon the workers, peasants and right-thinking people at large to firmly stand by the forest-dwelling poor and join them in their just struggle for saving their life and livelihood.

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